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Saturday, March 15, 2003
Updated: March 16, 8:02 PM ET
Even a gimpy Knight makes Pitt a Big East champ

By Kieran Darcy
Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Without Brandin Knight, the Pittsburgh Panthers are a good basketball team.

Brandin Knight
Brandin Knight, right, and the Panthers won their first Big East conference crown.

But with him, they are Big East champions.

Knight led his team, albeit gingerly, onto the Madison Square Garden floor 40 minutes before tip-off Saturday night. Then he led the Panthers to their first-ever Big East title, 74-56 over Connecticut.

"They're the toughest team in the league," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "And they're the best."

Knight strained a tendon in his right ankle in Friday's semifinal win over Boston College, and was questionable for Saturday's final. But he stayed up until 2 a.m. getting treatment Friday night, and then got an early wake-up call Saturday for more treatment.

"There was no way I was going to miss this game," Knight said. "The only way I wouldn't play is if I couldn't walk."

So while the rest of the Panthers participated in an impromptu pregame dunk contest before the officials arrived, Knight settled for perimeter jumpers. Smart move. Within the first two minutes against UConn, Knight had nailed two shots from outside that sent the Huskies a message: I'm good to go.

Still, there were some scary moments.

Midway through the first half, Knight hobbled off the floor and briefly returned to the locker room. He practically limped through the entire game.

Huskies fans still heckled him when he was at the foul line, but when Knight slipped and fell at one point in the second half, both Taliek Brown and Tony Robertson of UConn helped him up. They knew the kind of effort Knight was giving.

And he never let up. When Connecticut cut Pitt's lead to four with 6:54 to play, Knight nailed a 3-pointer from NBA range. And with under two minutes to play and Pitt up 14, Knight floor-burned one side of his body for a diving steal when UConn rolled an inbounds pass to save some clock. The game was already over -- well, for everyone else.

"It's all just guts and determination," Pitt coach Ben Howland said. "He's just too tough."

That goes for his whole team.

Forward Chevon Troutman played on a sore ankle, yet shut down UConn star Emeka Okafor. Guard Carl Krauser was nursing a hamstring injury as well. But Pitt just wanted this one more. This was their third straight Big East championship game -- last year, they lost a double-overtime heartbreaker to the Huskies.

"We didn't want to be the Buffalo Bills of the Big East tournament," Knight said. "We wanted to start making some history."

And they did, thanks to Knight, in particular. Even tournament MVP Julius Page agreed his teammate was more deserving of the honor. But Knight didn't care.

After the final horn, when he was surrounded by cameras, Knight let out a high-pitched scream. His smile told you it had nothing to do with pain.

The Panthers have more history to make. With a healthy Brandin Knight, Pittsburgh is a national championship contender. With a limping Brandin Knight, they might be too.

Kieran Darcy is a writer for ESPN The Magazine and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.